Tamara Rojo begins her first season as director of English National Ballet with Kenneth MacMillan’s version of The Sleeping Beauty. It is a significant choice and a very good production, with sumptuous sets and costumes and fine choreography by MacMillan that honours the original by Marius Petipa.
Tamara Rojo (Princess Aurora) in The Sleeping Beauty at Milton Keynes Theatre Photo: Tristram Kenton
MacMillan made the piece for American Ballet Theatre back in 1987 when the Russian dancer-director Mikhail Baryshnikov led the company, meaning there are multiple nuances in what many regard as the most important of the classics. These are much debated, but perhaps the most striking aspect of ENB’s performance on its opening night is how seriously the company takes the ballet.
Sleeping Beauty is a children’s fairy tale, yet every dancer conveyed both youthful magic and grown-up charm. Each sustain their dramatic focus, with both lead dancers and the supporting cast giving convincing performances of the characters they portray. The King (Antony Dowson) and Queen (Jane Haworth) give their roles appropriate noble bearing, while the Lilac Fairy (Daria Klimentova) and Carabosse (James Streeter) are measured accounts of the good and the malign - these can become caricatures if not well judged.
The dancing among the corps de ballet is generally good, and of a high standard among the principals. This is as you would expect given that the very able Vadim Muntagirov was the opening night Prince Desire, and Tamara Rojo is not only ENB’s new artistic director but also takes to the stage as the heroine Princes Aurora. It is not an easy role - Aurora is a young girl full of hope and expectation, but the steps are fiendishly difficult and expose even the best dancers. However, Rojo knows the role well, having danced it many times at The Royal Ballet which she recently left as one of its biggest stars. Her assured stage presence will do much to attract audiences - and inspired younger dancers - although it will certainly keep Rojo busy leading ENB both on stage and off, even if she only dances on opening nights.
Like most British ballet companies, ENB is feeling the pinch. Its Arts Council England grant has been sliced by 15%, and the tough economic times will surely squeeze its audience, with a knock-on impact on its box office takings. Austerity measures must limit scope for artistic development, although the two mixed bills Rojo has programmed for next year indicate a cautious inching forward of the repertory. However, none of this seems to affect the performers. The stage occasionally looks a little bare, as if the number of dancers has been trimmed, and you could argue with some of the mime, plus there was the occasional wobble, although nothing to be concerned about given how long the company has been off for the summer break.
English National Ballet is to be credited for bringing high quality classical ballet to out-of-London audiences. These are challenging times for the smaller troupes, but the ENB dancers show considerable commitment to their touring obligations.